Friday, 2 October 2015

Halloween 31 For 31: The Phantom Carriage (1921)

From https://kalafudra.files.
Director: Victor Sjöström
Screenplay: Victor Sjöström
Cast: Victor Sjöström (as David Holm); Hilda Borgström (as Anna Holm); Tore Svennberg (as Georges); Astrid Holm (as Edit); Concordia Selander (as Edit's Mother)

Synopsis: On New Year's Eve, the callous alcoholic David Holm (Sjöström) is the last person to die before the new year arrives. This means, in folklore, he will be forced to become the figure who drives the phantom carriage for the next year, the one who picks up the souls of the immediately passed. He argues with the previous driver Georges (Svennberg) for his life, forced to relive his sins including his cruelty to the Salvation Army nurse Sister Edit (Holm), who is dying of consumption at the same time and has been calling for him in hopes of redeeming him before she passes on in her death bed.

Horror as a genre shouldn't just be about repulsion or nihilistic content. That is just one side of the coin of a genre that can depict multiple emotions. It's possible to have very optimistic and life affirming narratives which use the worst fears human beings have as part of the message of perseverance. Fear of death and decay, which are a basic tenant of horror, can led to hope despite them. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) is as much a horror story as it is a Christmas tale, the horror in Ebenezer Scrooge's potential end, dying alone through his own cruelty, and in the ghosts that warn him of his misdeeds. The Phantom Carriage wouldn't have been in the horror genre if it didn't have its supernatural backbone for the narrative, more of a drama with faith based leanings and a clear alcohol abstinence message, but having the pretext of death and a grim reaper figure weighing down on the protagonist David Holm's shoulders does add an eerie meaning to the message, placing on that when one died you would be judged for all your sins and doomed by them. This could seem silly if one was agnostic or an atheist but it works as much as a metaphorical concept, doomed in death to trawl behind one regrets of one's failed life.

Like A Christmas Carol, while it may come off as antiquated now, the importance of one's acts in life are given repercussions as the afterlife is made a symbol of failure in improving oneself. Unlike many a sanctimonious movie, dire in their smiling messages of improvement, there is no peddling of any individual being better than those who need to redeem themselves. Baring the devil alcohol, what starts Holm's downward spiral in misanthropy is actually a combination of bad luck fed by the complications of human interaction, culminating in a proto-axe moment before The Shining (1980) was even a novel originally. I see why Ingmar Bergman saw this as one of his favourite movies because while the morality is black and white, the characters are complicated for silent movie protagonists regardless of this. In particular in Holm's wife Anna, pushed to a desperate way of escape to escape from him and his abuse, no one is inherently a stock figure but all individuals hurt or healed by each other, something which directly feeds into Bergman's own films, including the likes of Wild Strawberries (1957) where he cast Sjöström and partakes in the same ideas of reflecting back on one's life at the precipice of death even if in an entirely different context.

The supernatural context not only adds an all-seeing eye overlooking the human species trying to exist, but it solidifies the drama too. Anyone, even a good person, can end up in this world having to drive the Grim Reaper's titular carriage, trudging through the afterlife for a year that will feel like an eternity, the previous driver a weathered old man who feared this fate in one of the many flashbacks that makes up a flashback heavy plot structure. This aspect returns the story as well back to the complexity of myths rather than the over-simplification of many other movies, willing to see contradictions in the unseen forces and their elusiveness. It also adds to the film as entertainment, a horror film where it's a character's soul and not their lives that's at risk, not about an evil threat from the outside to fear but one man being a violent drunkard being forced to crawl through his own mistakes and to lay by the bed of a dying woman he treated badly without being able to say to her how sorry he is.

Technical Detail:
What immediately stands out, though it is only a quarter of the film, is the still-to-this-day impressive superimposition techniques used to depict the phantom carriage and the denizens of the afterlife. The hard work that would've taken place, using the technology of that day, is seen but my appreciation is beyond the mere recognition of what was not available and what the creators did to overcome this. Instead my appreciation is that it is entirely done with real props and merely with what could be done in-camera rather than in ones-and-twos of a computer. The ghostly figures have a greater sense of the ethereal than a modern day counterpart created with CGI. The images of the carriage are evocative when they take centre stage, especially in a scene of retrieval of a drowning victim from the bottom of the sea, a haunting nature that benefits the film in its execution by adding immense importance to the moral play of David Holm's redemption. As well, they make powerful images for the horror genre even if they are a mere fragment of the whole picture.

The film's existence as a silent film is of importance too. Silence films have become a unique part of cinema's history, still maligned in some contexts - in how they're rarely played on television, how not a lot are available outside the US on physical media -  but with their aesthetics having an aura around them that has led directors like Guy Maddin to directly replicate their visual structures in their own work. What could be seen as primitive in context of modern films - no sound, colour added in post-production tints - betrays the innovations in their style that are more advanced than some modern films, the aesthetic differences also providing The Phantom Carriage and other such older films different moods in comparison. The smaller screen frame makes the drama more closed in, and the tinting of scenes (orange for lit interiors, blue for night time exteriors) gives the world depicted an unreality of its own. The blackness of the environments, in small rooms, in a sparsely decorated Samaritan ward, or the tombstones of a graveyard, adds an ink-like visual atmosphere which emphasises the dread of the carriage but also the emotions of the figures within the tale.

Abstract Spectrum: Fantastique
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Barring the eeriness of the "ghost" effects, this is a straightforward drama with little that doesn't make sense directly in its meaning. Nothing is oblique and henceforth not abstract.

Personal Opinion:
It was a long time since first seeing images of The Phantom Carriage, amazed by the visuals in a DVD release trailer, but it's a wonderful sensation to have seen it now and for the film to stand up in reputation. Unexpectedly, like the end of A Christmas Carol, I ended up seeing a sweet film which left me with a warm heart rather than chills down the spine, a sensation special for me as much as the fear one finds in other horror films.

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